"Brought to you as a public service by OmniaNow

Your National Educational Resource

For Parents - For Teachers - For Administrators - For Our Children

Home Teachers Parents Health Articles Administrators Fed. Gov. Texas
Be Smart Kids, the early learning system. be smart kids dot comIdeasphere
Advertise here

It's Time to Wake up America's Schools!

By Glen McCandless  October 2008


As we open our eyes every morning, our nation's classrooms begin the day in settings remarkably similar to 100 years ago. There is a comic story about this situation that is shared frequently among those of us who work in the education industry. The joke was popularized after it appeared in the December 2006 Time magazine article, "How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century."  


Rip Van Winkle wakes up in 2008 after a hundred years asleep, amazed and bewildered by what he sees around him. Every place Rip goes he sees new, unrecognizable things that baffle him. But when he walks into a school building, the old man knows exactly where he is. "This is a school", he declares. "We used to have these back in 1908"'

American schools, the Time article said, "aren't exactly frozen in time, but considering the pace of change in other areas of life, our public schools tend to feel like throwbacks." Kids lug 50 pounds of textbooks to school on their backs and spend their day in school buildings equipped much as they were 50 years ago, littered with out-dated technology and industrial-age teaching tools. Yet the world outside school walls - for our students and teachers - stands in stark contrast to the world inside. We live among iPods and cell phones, play incredibly realistic video games, consume information from the web, and communicate with text messaging. Technology has and continues to change our lives at light speed - except in our schools.


How to update our archaic education system drives many discussions and debates. Last December, I was in Tampa at a three-day conference of the Florida Association of School Administrators.  The meeting took place one year after the Time article was published, but clearly, not much had changed. Administrators there, who run some of America's largest and fastest growing school districts, told me they are on the brink of losing their audience - students, that is.  Especially for middle and high school students, classrooms and the curriculum are old and tired. Teenagers are half-asleep, miserable and bored. They don't understand the relevance of what they are expected to memorize. Unless we make some dramatic changes soon in what and how we teach, we will lose the audience entirely. And when students disengage, learning doesn't happen. The men and women who manage Florida's education system (some of the newest and best schools in our country) expressed this deep concern, over and over again.  These young adults will enter our economy unprepared to do what today's workplace demands and to compete in a global technology-driven economy. Further, the cost of training new employees on the job will continue to impose enormous overhead on the companies that hire them.


Even though education is consistently viewed as critically important to our nation's future and our security, why is it so difficult to update our classrooms and change the way America's schools work?  Anne Wujcik, education industry analyst, posed this question to a panel of school superintendents at a conference I attended recently. The answer from the panelists was surprisingly consistent given many years of debate about what it will take to reform our schools.  No, their answer wasn't about more accountability. In summary, they said that a big part of the problem is parents and politicians who set priorities and control the purse strings. They simply can't envision what schools should be other than the type of education they, themselves, experienced. We don't understand why today's kids shouldn't get "back to the basics" and be taught to regurgitate the same facts and perform the same exercises that we did and our grandparents did - and to be educated with a 150 year-old approach.  Without a clear vision of something new and better, dusting off the same-old methods and cracking the whip seems the best strategy. The result?  We have political initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which have changed very little about what our students are expected to know and even less about the way they are taught.  Our laser-like focus on test scores seems to cloud what should be happening.


What we require is a clear new vision. We need to be shown examples of new approaches that are up to the 21st century challenge. For example, one of the pastors of the church I attend returned from a mission trip to Asia with videos of middle-school classrooms he had visited. He showed the congregation where he had been for the previous month -- not to stimulate conversation about how to reform our schools, but the video was, none the less, a real eye-popper.  The classrooms he visited looked like they had little in common with the typical U.S. school.  Uniformed students were working in small groups, in a workspace that resembled a corporate office. Each workpod was equipped with a flat-screen monitor and modern computer. The students were working on projects while teachers (more than one) moved from group to group, coaching them, answering questions, and collaborating with them. There was energy and intensity. You could see it in the students' eyes.  And guess what - these schools are graduating students who are running circles around ours in the critical skills and knowledge that drives the digital economy.


Similarly, at a conference I attended in San Francisco last May, I was part of an audience that watched a short documentary from the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Lucas let us take a peek into the life of a group of students attending female-only middle school in California - a charter school where girls work in small teams to create mock businesses and tackle real-world problems. These girls are energized and excited about their school work. What's more, the standard California academic standards and curriculum objectives are being met, but in a very different way, and in a setting that you would not recognize as school classroom.


In both cases, seeing a starkly different approach to schooling caused jaws to drop around me. A few minutes of attention to a screen brought front and center how students in some parts of the world are getting a different learning experience than most U.S. children.  You may ask -- different - or better?  We don't know for sure -- yet. But early returns suggest that there are better ways for us to educate our kids. These examples point the way to a very different approach to teaching and learning, empowered by a range of technology, just as our businesses are. The slipping performance of U.S. students in key academic areas, and poor performance in math and science suggests that we are losing out, and something different may, in fact, be better. Certainly, there is no doubt that our schools are long past due for a major overhaul, not just in the way we teach, but also what we teach. Let's face it -- how important is it that students memorize facts and figures for subjects and topics they may never use and regurgitate them on standardized tests? You can Google answers to most any question instantly, anytime, anyplace!


I believe two things must happen if we are to achieve real change and get our education system back on track. First, more has to be done to build awareness about new models of learning that are getting results. As long as parents and legislators are unaware of what the possibilities look like, there is little chance for change.  Second, education of our children must be a national priority because it is a pillar of our future security and prosperity.  It is time we reward students for something besides good test scores. Bringing our schools into the digital age, valuing creativity and innovation, and equipping our students to succeed in a highly competitive global economy has to be a national initiative with clear vision. We must invest to retool.


John Kennedy challenged us to send man to the moon and back safely and gave us a specific time frame to do it. Why did President Kennedy's charge work so well? Everyone knows where the moon is and what it looks like. It was unmistakable what had to happen to fulfill the vision and when it was to be accomplished. Kennedy's clear vision aligned our nation and mobilized our economy to figure out how get the job done. So must our president and leaders set a similar vision for our schools.  


Having a picture of what effective 21st century classrooms and teaching methods could look like is a critical piece of the school reform puzzle. Then, having a common commitment, priority and schedule to turn vision into reality is the only way it will happen.  If, like Rip Van Winkle, we sleep on this for much longer, the results will be disastrous for America and our collective future. We can not afford to wait another 100 years! We must wake up America's schools!


Copyright Glen McCandless, 2008

Copyright ©2019 ourUSASchools, LLC. All Rights Reserved.